William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
TWENTY-FOUR: That But This Blow Might Be the Be-all and the End-all
While Catesby and Jonson were being shackled that disheartening afternoon, the Earl of Southampton and I, in the role of his countess wife, stole away without Secretary of State Robert Cecil noticing that we had been standing in the back of the hall.
I suffered a more personal loss the following autumn. My father died roughly six months after we buried Essex. In a way, it was fortunate that he passed on when he did. Devout Catholic though he was, he would definitely not have approved of the fiendish plot which I helped to concoct four years down the road.
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth survived two more years of assassination attempts before dying peacefully in her sleep less than a fortnight after the ides of March of 1603. Her successor, the king of Scotland, had no sooner put on his second crown than things began to fall apart all around him.
To begin with, when King James, then thirty-seven, entered London on a chilly May day that year to inherit his cousin’s throne, it was with little pomp and no circumstance. A plague epidemic which took its first victim in mid-winter was still ravaging the city. And even as late as the following July, those unlucky few of us who were made to attend the Scotsman’s coronation as king of England had to take precautions against the decease.
Of the coronation ceremony, I recall only insignificant details: the cloistered atmosphere in which it took place, the king’s dread of anyone standing too close to his royal person, the look of fear in his eyes, and so on. What came after the gloomy ceremony was more significant to me. I met Ben Jonson for the first time since his latest incarceration. He and I were sitting in the Boar’s Head at the end of the day when he took a sip of ale, cradled his cup with both hands, and said: “You must be happy.”
“Thousands of Catholic exiles are returning home from the Continent.”
“Not all of us are pleased about it. The returning exiles have formed a radical league called the Spanish Party, which is advocating the replacement of His Majesty with a member of the Spanish royal family. Given the choice, I’d rather have Southampton as king.”
“Too late for him. Robert Cecil has won the Privy Council over. And they’re getting edgier and edgier by the day. I hear playhouses have been ordered closed, and that a dusk-to-dawn curfew is about to be imposed on all of London.”
I brought Ben up-to-date on what had happened while he was in prison: how Parliament had tightened its noose on recusancy with a spate of stringent laws; how Secretary of State Robert Cecil had dispersed all over the country a contingent of agents trained specially to ensure that Catholics didn’t celebrate Mass or engage in any other rites forbidden by the Established Church; and how he had expanded Sir Francis Bacon’s office to include, for the first time, women who posed as nuns travelling to or from Italy, Spain and Portugal. Bacon’s female agents were in charge of intercepting and decoding suspect correspondence.
I went to the tavern that evening still dressed in the scarlet livery in which I had attended the coronation. As Ben and I were reciting our litany of woes, Sir George Home happened upon us. He was His Royal Majesty’s Master of the Great Wardrobe.
Mocking me with an obsequious bow, the watchman of the king’s clothes pronounced most revoltingly: “Master Shake Spayer, you must be commended for the impeccability of your accoutrement. Thus attired, you could pass for a candidate for the papacy.”
I rose and was about to seize the fawning cur by the throat when Ben stepped between us and said to me: “He’s not the first to make that observation, Will. I myself have remarked more than once that you would have made an outstanding man of the cloth if the way you play clerics were anything to go by.”
Sir George pranced out of the tavern. But his pomposity was reduced to naught when my brother Edmund knocked him off his feet.
Edmund had been running and was out of breath. “Ben!” he called before reaching our table. “Get on a horse. Any horse. Be gone!”
Ben didn’t ask why he had to be gone. He disappeared while I could still see the back of the Master of the Great Wardrobe.
Edmund took the chair Ben had fled out of. After calming down, he informed me that a warrant had been issued for the author’s arrest. Word had reached Whitehall Palace that he was overheard making bawdy jokes about Scotland, the Scottish, and their transplanted king.
Ben and I went into hiding together. He joined the Spanish Party three days after escaping from the Boar’s Head; and I, a week later. As members of the party, we were offered accommodations and identical employment at the Italian embassy. Our job was to assign residences and squires for the hundreds of Catholic priests, mostly Jesuits, who were returning home from exile.
We worked at the embassy for a little over eight months. During that time, Edmund handled the business of selling Emmanuel’s dramas to Richard. He also took whatever roles I would normally have played in Richard’s productions.
While I was in hiding, Amina, disguised as a boy, joined the Servants of the Holy Heart of Mary: a newly created division of the government’s network of intelligencers. Comprised mostly of boy actors dressed in black habits and trained to eavesdrop, the “servants” pretended to be nuns from a congregation in the Netherlands. They were assigned to infiltrate Catholic bodies and gather information on recusants.
A mere week after she joined them, one of the boys got wind of Amina’s true identity and delated her to Sir Francis Bacon.
“They didn’t waste any time dispatching her,” Lady Kadiatu said on the night she brought me the news in late May 1604. My wife had confided in her and left John and Lidia in her care at Chateau Tunkara. “It was only yesterday she told me she had been found out. And this morning her mud-covered body was discovered in front of the Malian embassy. She had been strangled.”
“Why the embassy of Mali?” We were in Amina’s room at Casa Corisco. I sat down and held tight onto a bedpost until my knuckles turned ghastly pale.
“You’d have to ask Emmanuel – Ambassador Coulibaly. He must know something about the circumstances of her murder.”
I did ask Emmanuel – at Amina’s funeral, which took place the day after I returned to La Chaumière, the home where I had been lodging before joining the Spanish Party.
Far from being a cottage, La Chaumière is a Frankish mansion tucked away in a dense circle of giant evergreens at the corner of Silver and Muggle streets in the opulent “Foreign Quarter” between Cripplegate and Cheapside.
My landlord and I had met during my seminary days in Rheims, when I was Gulielmus Stratfordus; and he Christophe Montjoie, a Huguenot seeking advice about emigrating to England. Years later, we stumbled into each other at the Swan Theatre. By then, he had modified his name to Christopher Mountjoy and established himself as a prominent wig-maker.
Christopher, his wife Marie and their daughter Mary attended the funeral. They had been standing beside me during the ceremony. When it was over, Emmanuel came to our side of the grave and said: “I am profoundly sorry, Will.”
“You shouldn’t be. You couldn’t have foreseen what was going to happen.”
“I had inklings.” He and I walked some distance away from my other guests before he added: “The last time I spoke with Amina, she informed me that Sir Francis had said he knew me very well.”
“You could be reading too much into the remark.”
“With just cause. Amina told him she and I were cousins, and that she lived with me. Besides seeing through the false statements, he appears to have deduced facts about me in the course of interviewing her that I’d rather keep secret. While we were attending a reception at Wilton House two weeks ago, he called me Professor Lopez. Although he apologized and explained that I reminded him of an old friend, my instincts tell me he’s after my hide. It’s back to Timbuktu for Felicia and me as soon as the Malian foreign ministry appoints my replacement.”
A month or so after Emmanuel notified Sir Michael of his intention to return to Mali and settle there, Lady Kadiatu left for Africa in search of Mali’s next ambassador to England. My daughter, Lidia Noelle, accompanied her.
Less than another month later my son John, whom I hadn’t seen for nearly a year, set sail for Corisco. All Saints’ College had been reopened. He was going back to his native land to study for the priesthood.
I never felt more alone, and lonely. But inactive, I certainly was not. Emmanuel continued to write dramas, and I again made myself available to sell them.
However, I took exception to the play he gave me one day in the first week of June 1604 – one he had written at Oxford’s request and with his help. It was clearly intended to flatter King James, and I didn’t want to be counted among his flatterers. In a matter of months, our Catholic-born Scottish ruler had become more oppressive of those who practised his beloved mother’s faith than Queen Elizabeth had been in her entire reign.
They called the new piece Macbeth.
When the earl learned that neither Richard nor I would have anything to do with Macbeth, he decided to become the king’s chief entertainer and produce the play himself. He scheduled the first production for the twenty-fifth of June. But it had to be delayed for a month.
The night before the Scottish drama was to have been staged for the first time, after overseeing the preparations at Whitehall Palace, right up to the dress rehearsal, Edward de Vere, the generous though often cantankerous and sometimes belligerent seventeenth Earl of Oxford, surrendered his soul to the Almighty. Some said he died of exhaustion. Others, that he was taken by plague.
For weeks afterwards, nobody would talk about Macbeth. Nor would anyone touch Othello, the tragic sequel to The Marriage of the Prince of Morocco which Emmanuel had written at the same time as he and Oxford collaborated on entertaining King James with a distorted history steeped in witchcraft.
At long last, after dogged persuasion from three of our fellow actors, Richard and I agreed to stage both tragedies. But the events which immediately followed our productions of Othello and Macbeth took my mind away completely from plays and play-acting.
Early one afternoon in November 1604, I was attending a party at La Chaumière when I received an enigmatic invitation.
Mary Mountjoy had just married her father’s journeyman, Stephen Bellot. And Stephen was making a speech when his father-in-law, beside whom I was seated, inclined his head slightly toward me and whispered in my ear that Ellen was outside. She wanted to see me but wouldn’t come in and join the wedding reception.
Ellen Fortescue and her husband John were my tenants. In spite of the risks which Mother Isola had pointed out would be involved in owning real estate in London, I had bought the eastern gatehouse of Blackfriars, got a few of my close friends to hold the property in trust for my son, and fortified it for the use of priests in need of a place to hide. Ellen and John (nephew to the John Fortescue who had been Queen Elizabeth’s Master of the Wardrobe) lived on the premises and took care of my house.
On the day she came looking for me at La Chaumière, Ellen had done so at the request of a guest she and her husband were then looking after: Father John Gerard. Because of ill-health, Father John hadn’t been able to leave England since his escape from the Tower seven years earlier. He wanted me to join him and his two benefactors for supper on the twelfth of December.
Ellen might not have been aware of it, but the invitation she brought me was to much more than a supper engagement. Father John’s real message was in his date. The twelfth of December was the day a year earlier that Robert Catesby, then head of the Midland Movement, had called off a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The priest and I did indeed sup with John and Ellen Fortescue on the twelfth of December. But our hosts hadn’t even begun clearing their table when he invited me to his room to hear my confession – if I wanted him to. I wanted him to.
We were in Father John’s room just long enough for him to inform me that another supper, one he was hosting, awaited us in the refectory. He put on his cassock, I laid a stole over his shoulders, and we headed for the dining hall of the erstwhile monastery.
When we entered the old refectory, the other guests all rose. We crossed ourselves as Father John chanted: “In nomine patris…”
The others had already been eating while waiting for us. I recognized all but one of them: Mistress Pym, Thomas Percy, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Hugh Owen, Francis Tresham, John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Robert Keyes, John and Christopher Wright, Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, his servant Thomas Bates, and my brother Edmund. It was an assembly of the London chapter of the Midland Movement.
Father John’s prayer ended, Catesby took the floor and updated us on what had transpired since we last met. He had evidently been tortured in prison following his arrest for importing gunpowder. His speech was much slower than usual, and his right arm lay on a sling. Two wounds gaped open on his forehead, and a third on his left cheek.
After bringing us up to date on the Movement’s activities, he announced: “Our organization now has in high places two members who will be able to tell it the mind of the Privy Council any day of any week.” He bowed to Thomas Percy and to another man whom he introduced to us as Sir Everard Digby.
Sir Everard (the latest recruit of the Midland Movement) was a member of Parliament. And Percy (a founding member of the society) had recently joined the staff of the Secretary of State, Robert Cecil.
Guy spoke next. Since he and I met in Rome, he had fulfilled his dream of serving in the Spanish forces and had, while in the army, acquired a skill that would be invaluable for our purposes. He made bombs. Twitching and squinting now more than ever, he said: “I’m going to need four or five pairs of hands to help me dig a tunnel.”
Our eyes were glued on the bomb-maker as he explained that Percy had taken ownership of a cellar beneath Parliament and was about to purchase a house that had become vacant about one hundred yards from the cellar. After thanking me for suggesting what he was going to reveal next, he continued: “Make note one and all that I am now under the employ of Thomas – my lord Percy here – as his servant John Johnson. My place of work is his cellar under the House of Lords. John Johnson, being myself, will dig a tunnel from his lordship’s new property to a spot directly below the throne on which His Scottish Highness will sit when he opens Parliament for the first – and, let’s hope, the last – time in England. Who are my volunteers?”
Nearly all of us shot up our hands. Guy elected Owen, Tresham, Grant, Keyes and Bates. He then informed the assembly that Robert (Catesby), Edmund and I were going to be responsible for conveying the gunpowder he would need to Percy’s new house, from where he himself would move it through the tunnel, one barrel at a time, to his “office”. At that point, some of the gunpowder had been transferred to Casa Corisco; most of the rest was still in Robert’s own house in Lambeth.
For the remainder of that night we sorted out the details of what we would do at the next opening of Parliament and assigned various tasks to each member present. Then Father John rose. As the rest of us also began to get on our feet, he asked: “Who succeeds King James?”
“The Prince of Wales,” replied Catesby. “My man Thomas will hold him in a safe place until the dust settles.”
“I vote for Princess Elizabeth,” countered Mistress Pym.
“I concur,” Sir Everard said. Raking his bushy hair with his fingers, he added: “She’s an avowed Catholic, which the Prince of Wales is not. With her as Queen Elizabeth the Second, we should have no difficulties delivering England back to Rome.”
“Hear! Hear!” We clapped as quietly as we could. At the end of which Mistress Pym suggested, and everyone agreed, that Edmund and I be the ones to abduct the princess and hold her in Casa Corisco until her coronation day.
It must have been four or five o’clock the next morning when Reverend John Gerard finally ended the proceedings with a few words of advice and another prayer. He concluded: “So far, you have made two unsuccessful attempts at putting our country back on the right path to salvation. This one must not fail. It is not for nothing that we have named the enterprise Operation Corisco. Corisco means lightning in Portuguese. Make Operation Corisco the flash of lightning which rekindles the faith of our fathers in our generation. May your execution be as swift as a thunderbolt, and unstoppable. Oremus…”
As we were saying “…et dimitte nobis debita nostra…”, Edmund tugged the sleeve of my cloak. And the moment our prayer ended, he told me Gilbert was on London Bridge, and rushed out.
What he meant was that Gilbert, attired and bearded like me, had spent the night pacing London Bridge on my behalf.
The product of a brutal rape, who has been familiar with murder from childhood, and who has himself come closer to death by assassination than ever his predecessor did, King James was and still is pathologically afraid for his life. It came as no surprise then that, upon ascending the throne of England, one of the first actions His Majesty took was to have guards stationed at “critical loci” everywhere in London. And the two ends of London Bridge were listed among the “loci”.
Another step His Royal Highness took almost as soon as he started wearing the English crown was to have our troupe incorporated as the King’s Servants. And when the erstwhile Chamberlain’s Men became servants of His Majesty’s household, all of us were issued royal livery to wear on special occasions. Those actors, like me, who so desired, also received uniforms of the king’s militia for use when they stood guard in spots around the city which were assumed to require protection.
So it came about that, on the day I told Gilbert what the Midland Movement planned to do at the next opening of Parliament, he offered to wear my uniform and appear in public places impersonating me whenever I attended one of the Midlanders’ meetings or undertook a risky mission for the group or for the Spanish Party. Thus, if I were suspected of wrongdoing, my participation in any unlawful activity would be brought into doubt by witnesses testifying that they saw me on guard duty at such a place, on such a day, at such a time.
Copyright: Raphael Soné